Mardi Gras Murder_A Cajun Country Mystery, page 1
Mardi Gras Murder is dedicated to my readers.
Without you, this wouldn’t be a book. It would just be a file in my computer.
The People of Mardi Gras Murder
The Crozat Family
Magnolia Marie (“Maggie”) Crozat—our heroine
Thibault (“Tug”) Crozat—Maggie’s father
Ninette Crozat—Maggie’s mother
Grand-mère—Maggie’s grandmother on her dad’s side
Lia Tienne Bruner—Maggie’s cousin
Kyle Bruner—Lia’s husband
Bo Durand—detective and Maggie’s boyfriend
Rufus Durand—on leave as Pelican PD police chief; currently a detective; father of baby Charli
Hank Perske—acting police chief
Friends, Frenemies, and Some Citizens
Gaynell Bourgeois—friend and coworker
Ione Savreau—friend and coworker
Whitney—Bo’s ex-wife and Xander’s mother
Xander—Bo and Whitney’s seven-year-old son with Asperger’s syndrome
Vanessa Fleer—frenemy turned kind-of friend- Ru’s ex-fiancée and mother of Charli
Quentin MacIlhoney—defense attorney, Vanessa’s fiancé
Lee Bertrand—Grand-mère’s boyfriend
Chret Bertrand—Gaynell’s boyfriend
Jayden Jones—Chret’s friend and fellow vet
JJ—proprietor of Junie’s Oyster Bar and Dance Hall
Old Shari—nonagenarian bartender at Junie’s Oyster Bar and Dance Hall
Little Earlie Waddell—publisher, editor, and jack-of-all trades at the Pelican Penny Clipper
Eula Banks—civil servant, Hall of Records
Mayor Beaufils—mayor of Pelican
Fay Labadie—senior citizen
Stacy Metz-wife of Robbie Metz, pageant judge
Contestants for the Title of Miss Pelican Mardi Gras Gumbo Queen
Belle Tremblay—the perfect contestant
Allouette (“Allie”) Randall—the reluctant contestant
Kaity Bertrand—the enthusiastic contest
Parents and Guardians of the Contestants
Pauline and Jules Tremblay—Belle’s parents
Denise and Mike Randall—Allie’s parents
Gin Bertrand—Kaity’s grandmother and guardian
Gerard Damboise—head judge
Constance Damboise—his wife
Robbie Metz—owner of several Park ’n’ Shop convenience stores
Mo Heedles—multitier marketing skin care maven
I owe a debt of gratitude to my neighbor and pal Julia Bricklin, who inspired a plot when she turned me on to a wonderful book, From Cradle to Grave: Journey of the Louisiana Orphan Train Riders, by the Louisiana Orphan Train Society; editor, Neal Bertrand.
As always, I have to thank my fellow Chicks at chicksonthecase.com—Lisa Q. Mathews, Kellye Garrett, Mariella Krause, Vickie Fee, and Cynthia Kuhn—as well as my GoWrite gals, Mindy Schneider, Kate Schein, and Kathy McCullough. And, of course, a thank-you to all the friends I’ve named in the books preceding this, plus a couple of new ones: Debra Derbyshire Burnette and her husband, NOPD officer Jonathan Burnette, who offered valuable research assistance when I needed it, and all-around general support. Merci, you two! A thank-you to author Marni Graff for connecting me with Jevon Thistlewood, art conservator at the University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum; he gets both my appreciation for his help and an award for the best name ever.
Without my agent, Doug Grad, there would be no Crooked Lane connection; and without Mathew Martz, Sarah Poppe, and Jenny Chen, there would be no Crooked Lane books or Cajun Country Mysteries. And then there’s the amazing cover design team, including the artist responsible for the brilliant artwork on my covers, Stephen Gardner.
I’m blessed to belong to Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, specifically the chapters SinCLA and SoCalMWA. A special shout-out goes to chapter presidents Rochelle Staab and Elizabeth Little for shepherding an amazing California Crimewriters Conference, which led to a desperately needed breakthrough on this particular book; and keynote speakers Hallie Ephron and William Kent Krueger, whose workshops inspired me, as did workshops with Jeffrey Deaver and Jess Lourey.
As I mentioned above, so many friends have supported me through this fabulous journey—rather than list you all, just know how much I value each and every one of you. My darling daughter Eliza, your love and humor inspire me every day. And Jer … words can’t express my love and appreciation for everything you’ve done to encourage me.
On a deeply personal note, there was a time when I feared for the life of my mother, Elizabeth Seideman. So, I want to give special thanks to everyone at Phelps Memorial Hospital in Tarrytown, New York, for saving her. Those of us who know and adore this remarkable woman are forever in your debt.
The rain came. Came in a way no one in St. Pierre Parish had ever seen before. Bayous and rivers exploded their banks, turning small towns into lakes. Some residents escaping the deluge had to dodge alligators that the rushing water swept onto their flooded front porches. “It was like the good Lord took all his showers on one day,” Claude Fauchon muttered to the Cajun Navy as the hardy volunteers rescued him and his ancient mutt from the submerged Creole cottage Claude had owned for sixty of his eighty years.
The rain sent a torrent of water raging down the usually placid Bayou Beurre. And with it came a community’s rubbish: worn-out tires, a ringer washer, an out-of-date infant’s car seat, even a suitcase full of 1960s-era women’s wigs. The junk backed up against the single lane bridge behind Crozat Plantation Bed and Breakfast, blocking the bayou’s path to the Gulf of Mexico. The bayou overflowed, threatening the B and B’s outbuildings. But an intrepid crew of Crozat family members and volunteers let the relentless rain soak them as they hauled away the detritus of small town life. It wasn’t until they’d almost reached the bottom of the pile that they found the body.
The body of a stranger to Pelican, Louisiana.
Three weeks later …
“I’m gonna miss your mama’s cooking something fierce,” Fay Labadie told Maggie as she hugged her goodbye.
Maggie grinned. “Words I’ll never hear about my own cooking, that’s for sure.”
She placed a small suitcase into the trunk of a waiting cab. It contained the few belongings Fay had been able to salvage from her flood-ravaged cottage. Following the weather catastrophe, the Crozats had closed their B and B to paying guests so they could house locals like Fay, whose home lay in the vulnerable, low-lying outskirts of Pelican. The Crozats had taken a financial hit from their generous act, but at least their home still stood. Wary of the mighty Mississippi, Maggie’s ancestors had built their plantation on the highest ground they could find. As this was Louisiana, high ground was barely above sea level, yet that was enough to protect the plantation’s manor house. Some of the outbuildings hadn’t been so lucky. The 1920s garage, sitting closest to Bayou Beurre, took on three feet of water when the bayou breached its banks, putting on hold the family’s plan to turn it into a spa that might lure more guests to Crozat Plantation’s lovely but simple facilities.
Weeks after the storm dropped fifteen inches of rain in twenty-four hours, the streets of St. Pierre Parish were still lined with piles of debris people pulled from their homes—ruined furniture, toys, photo albums. Every road seemed a funeral procession of
“I’m sure it is.” And knowing Fay, Maggie was sure it would be. Like so many seniors—and not so seniors—Fay’s emotional attachment to Cajun Country was stronger than the steel bridges spanning the Mississippi. As Maggie’s beloved Gran’ once put it, “I’ll be in Pelican from cradle to crypt.”
Maggie watched Fay’s cab make its way down the B and B’s hard-packed, decomposed granite driveway and turn onto the River Road toward New Orleans. She flashed on the body of the old man found under the bridge over Bayou Beurre at the far end of the Crozats’ property. He hadn’t been far from her thoughts since then. When she tried to push the image away, it returned like a recurring nightmare. The man was Pelican’s only storm fatality. But found without a wallet or ID, he had yet to be identified. No one in town seemed to know him. This was unusual for a community so close-knit that residents occasionally discovered they accidentally married distant cousins.
Maggie forced herself to focus. Mardi Gras was coming, and to the Crozats’ surprise, none of their guests had been scared off by news reports about the storm damage in St. Pierre Parish, which many of them felt paled compared to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Come the weekend before Mardi Gras, the B and B would be full of New Orleanians eager to trade the chaotic partying in their own city for Pelican’s down-home festivities, so Pelican had to be ready for the revelers. The motto, “Yes, we Peli-CAN” was now a rallying cry, inspiring citizens to show the world the flood was no match for the town’s Mardi Gras celebrations.
“Hey there, you.”
Maggie started and then smiled. She turned to see her boyfriend, Pelican Police Department Detective Bo Durand. They took a step toward each other and embraced.
“You’re a fair sight prettier than moldy drywall,” Bo said.
“Why, sir, you flatter me.” Maggie, doing her best Southern belle imitation, pretended to fan herself. “How are repairs going?” The guesthouse Bo rented was uninhabitable, forcing him to bunk with his cousin Rufus Durand, currently on leave from his job as Pelican PD police chief, thanks to an altercation with the town mayor over a parking space.
“I got the place almost down to the studs, but my landlady doesn’t want to put any money into repairs until she knows how much help she’s going to get from the government. Place could be a total loss. On top of that, it’s crazy time with Rufus. He’s celebrating because Chief Perske’s given his two-week notice.”
“So, Ru’s going to be chief again?”
“Yeah, and he’s taking advantage of his last gasp of freedom before he’s back in a position where he has to be a ‘role model.’ I don’t know what I’m gonna find when I open the door. One day he’s partying like a frat boy,the next I gotta talk in whispers because it’s his day to have Charli, and you know how nuts he is over that baby.”
“She’s the best thing that ever happened to Ru. The way he cares for her is enough to take the quotes off of ‘role model.’”
“I know, I know. But now that he’s baby-proofed the place, I can’t open a dang cabinet.”
“You don’t remember from when Xander was a baby?” Maggie said with a grin. Xander was the seven-year-old son Bo shared with his ex-wife, Whitney.
Bo frowned and shook his head. “I was never too good with those locks when it was my own kid.” He made a face. “The last couple of days Vanessa’s had Charli, so Chez Ru’s been rocking. Music blasting, trash and laundry piling up. I smell like stale beer and gym socks.”
“You don’t.” Maggie pulled Bo to her and kissed him. “Okay, you do a little.”
“I think I’m gonna have to burn my clothes and take a bath in one of those industrial washing machines.”
Maggie laughed. She then grew serious. “I keep thinking about the flood victim. Has the department had any luck identifying him?”
“Not yet. To be honest, we haven’t had time to do much about it. It’s a mess working out of the temporary space.” Pelican PD headquarters had taken on two feet of water, compelling the force to relocate to temporary digs. “Let’s talk about something besides flood stuff. I need a break from it. You haven’t had the chance to fill me in on Pelican Mardi Gras.”
Maggie smiled. “Alrighty, my little Pelican Mardi Gras virgin. The day starts with a Courir de Mardi Gras, aka the Mardi Gras Run. That’s where people dress in these unique costumes and go door-to-door, singing and begging for ingredients to use in the big communal gumbo. It’s a chance to drink and act goofy without anyone knowing who you are because you’re wearing a mask. It used to be only men, but in the time between when I moved to New York and came back, two other runs started, one for women and one for families. I’ve never done the Run before. I’m looking forward to it. There’s also the big gumbo cook-off—”
“Your dad told me about that.”
“Oh, my dad is all about the gumbo cook-off. He gets a little crazy, let me tell you. And the whole day ends with a fais do-do, so no matter how tired you are from being a Mardi Gras, you will be dancing.”
“Being a Mardi Gras?”
“That’s right; here in Pelican, Mardi Gras is a proper noun. You not only go to Mardi Gras, you are a Mardi Gras.”
“What about a parade?”
“Oh, there’s a parade. It’s not Mardi Gras without at least a little ‘Throw me something, mister.’”
“Isn’t there some kind of beauty contest as part of the festivities?”
Maggie groaned and rolled her eyes. “My least favorite part of the day. Forgetting to mention it must have been a Freudian slip. Yes, there’s the legendary Miss Pelican Mardi Gras Gumbo Queen Pageant. Gran’ is a judge every year, and I bless her and Mama for never making me enter. They must’ve known I’d sooner pack a hobo stick and run away. Although the winner does get to wear a wonderfully kitschy crown with a gumbo pot centerpiece made from rhinestones.”
Bo raised an eyebrow. “Getting an image of you in a bathing suit, high heels, and a crown … and liking it.” Bo’s cell phone rang. He pulled the phone out of his back pocket and checked it. “Chief Perske,” he said. “I have to take this.”
He stepped away, and Maggie entertained herself by admiring how the detective’s jeans hugged his long, lean frame. Bo ended his call and stood rooted in place.
“Everything okay?” Maggie asked.
Bo frowned. “Something I didn’t see coming. The coroner’s home was flooded, so he hasn’t been at work. He went back to the morgue today, and the first order of business was examining our mysterious drowning victim. Only … it turns out he didn’t drown.”
“Wait—the man from the bayou?” Maggie asked, confused. “The man found under our bridge? He didn’t drown?”
“No.” Bo’s voice was grim. “He was murdered.”
Maggie stared at Bo. “Murdered?”
He nodded. “Shot to death. Which you don’t know, because Perske specifically said not to tell you anything about it.”
“Of course he did.” Being an artist, Maggie possessed a visual acuity that enabled her to pick up clues others had missed in past murder investigations. This thoroughly annoyed the outgoing police chief.
Maggie rubbed her forehead. “It makes no sense. No one seems to know the victim. But somebody killed him.”
“Well, that means somebody’s lying.”
Maggie started up the whitewashed cypress steps of the manor house, and Bo followed her inside. They walked down the wide hall into the kitchen, where they were greeted by t
“Do you think the man’s wallet washed down the bayou?” Maggie asked as she and Bo tucked into their dinner.
“We’re looking for it, but I don’t think so. My guess is whoever killed the guy removed anything that could ID him.”
“I didn’t check him out too closely, needless to say. But I did notice his clothes looked worn. Who would want to kill some poor old man?”
“I know someone who might want to kill a middle-aged one,” Ninette muttered.
Maggie and Bo shared a look, amused by this flash of attitude from Maggie’s kindhearted mother. “Dad and the gumbo contest?” Maggie asked.
Ninette sighed. “Oh yes. I should warn you, nothing’s changed about your dad and that cook-off in the years you were away in New York. He still gets all het about it and starts banging around my kitchen and getting in my way and using up all my ingredients.”
“I’ll talk to him, Mama.”
“Oh, chére, you know there’s no talking to him when it comes to his gumbo.”
“So the competition’s that stiff, huh?” Bo said. “I better give my own gumbo recipe a test run before Mardi Gras.” Bo motioned to his bowl. “And if your dad is making seafood, I’m going with chicken and sausage. I can’t see anyone beating this.”
“You better not beat him, period, or it could be the end of our relationship,” Maggie joked.
“I’d be some kind of fool to put a gumbo cook-off ahead of a beautiful girl.” Bo kissed her forehead. “I best be going.” He nodded to Ninette. “Ma’am.”